Cycling Plus, May 2001
Picture it: a rare lovely weekend. The sky truly, madly, deeply blue, as it’s meant to be and often is in other countries. You’re on your bicycle. There’s no other traffic. In fact, the road has been closed to cars. How do you celebrate? My personal ode to joy involves letting hands slip from handlebars and guiding my bike by mind power à la Uri Geller, though I try not to bend the frame. It’s the closest I ever come to levitating.
Have you ever cycled hands-free? Not as a public demonstration of your prowess, but as a private declaration of your freedom? Well, the Bill doesn’t like it very much, and they’ve let me know.
To inaugurate the Millennium for Sticklers I pedalled down the Mall in London, which is closed to motorised traffic on Sundays, and aimed myself at Buckingham Palace. Rode a nice straight line into the arms of a PC. “Don’t you think it’s safer with your hands on the bars?” the constable asked. “Yes,” I answered, perjuring myself. The technique was firmly suggested. Spirits on a stall, I complied.
You cannot argue with The Law. For The Law simply Is. You obey it, or risk being called an anarchist. The Highway Code, a quasi-sacred text, has this to say about the matter: “[Cyclists] should keep both hands on the handlebars except when signaling or changing gear.” Hard to disagree with such common sense advice. Until you feel an ode to joy coming on, that is.
How could The Law possibly know (and would it care if it did?) that I’ve been riding this way most of my life, and my instincts for self-preservation guide me even when my hands do not? Indeed, that the technique has taught me better control, and is evidence of the unique relationship I have with my machine? Certainly no motorist is so intimate with his car that he can confidently steer it with the slightest nudge of his hips….
I am in most respects a model cyclist, endeavoring always to be considerate to my fellow travellers no matter how many wheels they’ve got; even stopping at red lights my grandmother would blow. But The Law isn’t omniscient, despite the advances of CCTV, and when it catches you red-handed or even no-handed it’s impossible to plead innocence due to previous good behaviour.
I’ll wager that any cyclist who’s laid down decent mileage in the city knows The Lecture. Its exact content varies according to the crime, but one ingredient is usually tossed into the pot: “You cyclists think you’re above the law.” How many errant drivers are treated to “You motorists….”? Only then will you feel the full weight of the sins of the community on your shoulders, its collective guilt a cross you must bear due to your convenient proximity and culpability.
Perhaps The Lecture is a small price to pay for being a member of a civilised society, but it’s a large price to pay for being a minority. Because you know, and she knows, even as she’s wagging her finger at you, that the only reason you fell neatly into her sights is because of you’re on two wheels instead of four: easy prey. She’s powerless to make much of a dent in the motorised mayhem, so she makes a calculation: your errors = X number of driver errors. Don’t know what X is, but it’s big. It doesn’t hurt her image with the non-cycling public to be seen having a stern chat with us peddlers every so often, either.
Then there’s the simple matter that in this country the urban cyclist is ipso facto a nonconformist: another large blip on PC radar. We just can’t win, except by being perfect, and as we’re all fond of telling ourselves, nobody’s perfect.
To many, the police represent sane order in a world which would otherwise spin mad. They do society’s dirty work, and as representatives of The Law, serving it in the front lines every day, they deserve respect. Who am I, alone on my bicycle, keeping my balance in an unbalanced world, cycling through the trenches every day, representing nothing but a single free human spirit, to argue?
Postscript: The following weekend. Same sky, venue, modus operandi. I pass a kid on a unicycle. Now why didn’t I think of that?
. . .
After you’ve indemnified and held me blameless, why not give it a try.